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Wednesday, 11 December 2002
Page: 7713

Senator JACINTA COLLINS (1:10 PM) —A significant matter of public interest in contemporary terms is this government's management of asylum seekers arriving at our borders. The Senate and the general public are broadly aware of the `children not-overboard' incident. Many concerns still remain in relation to what occurred with the ship now characterised as SIEVX. Yesterday the Senate called for a judicial inquiry into the handling of SIEVX and Australia's disruption activities in Indonesia. I anticipate strong support for the motion that I will be moving today in respect of the alleged people smuggler Abu Qussey, the man strongly connected to what subsequently occurred to SIEVX and the loss of more than 350 lives. But today I want to focus on the treatment of asylum seekers aboard the four SIEVs—suspected illegal entry vessels—returned to Indonesia last year. There is a recent Human Rights Watch report dealing with additional information about how some of those asylum seekers were treated. It is important that the Senate note that report and some of the information available therein.

To remind the Senate and the public of the background of matters involved here, a significant change in Australia's approach to border protection occurred in the lead-up to the last federal election. But what many people have forgotten, or had not realised, is that a fundamental change occurred in our management of asylum seekers during the caretaker period leading up to the last election, where the government summarily changed its approach to managing these suspected illegal entry vessels and started returning them to the Indonesian coastline. What we still do not know today, in many respects, is how that return was effected. Perhaps the most concerning aspect of that is in this Human Rights Watch report, where on page 40 under the heading, `Australian interceptions at sea', we are told:

When Australia prevents vessels transporting asylum seekers from reaching its shores it engages in interception. A number of countries practice interception at sea, but Australia has set a dangerous precedent in terms of how they are conducted and resolved.

In many respects, the Australian parliament and the Australian public still do not know how they are conducted and resolved.

I have some sympathy for the defence officials and the Navy officers and personnel involved in some of these interceptions. Through this and other reports, we have heard stories of Navy personnel in tears as they dealt with some of these asylum seekers. Unfortunately, in some instances I think Navy personnel are bearing criticism for actions that may not indeed have involved Navy personnel. We still do not know precisely which Australian personnel were involved with the handling of asylum seekers on some of these ships. Some of them were other defence personnel, and I would not be surprised if some others were the personnel of other Australian agencies, such as the Australian Federal Police.

What this report does highlight are a few of the cases that, at least in the Australian parliament, we have not been able to test the veracity of. Some of those are enough to make you weep. Looking at one of those cases cited on page 41 of the Human Rights Watch report in relation to the unnecessary use of force aboard SIEV5, we see that the families who were on HMAS Warramunga told the Human Rights Watch how they were forcibly put back on the fishing vessel after the Australians had taken them to the edge of Indonesian waters. This practice itself is questioned, but then there is the matter of how it was undertaken—for instance, one man was beaten until he was unconscious. The report quotes one woman as saying:

“We tried to put our babies at the soldier's feet and begged them to have mercy on the children: `Where are the rights of the children?' I asked in Persian, and a man translated that question for me.” When they saw that their pleas were having no effect, her husband moved forward to try to pick up his child, but his sudden movement alarmed the soldiers, who pinned him down on his back on the floor. The baby was left clinging to his chest.

The report further quoted this woman as saying:

They had iron military badges on their shoulders, and one man touched it with his stick to show the electric sparks. Then they beat the sides and ribs of my husband with the electric sticks until he was unconscious. He was hit at least four times. The baby held onto his neck throughout this beating. I thought he had died, and when they moved away from his motionless body I rushed forward to rescue the baby.

Senator Brandis —You know that has been denied by the military, don't you, Senator Collins?

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —Senator Brandis, I am glad that you are happy to have this interchange.

Senator Brandis —You ought to show a bit more loyalty to Australian service personnel and not uncritically accept what the refugees say.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —I will refer to anybody, and, in fact, I invite Senator Brandis to make a contribution following my own.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Lightfoot)—Senator Collins should be heard in silence.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —I will invite anybody to assess the Australian government's response to some of these claims, and I am simply referring to claims at this stage, Senator Brandis.

Senator Brandis —I notice you did not mention the denials by the people in queues.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESI-DENT —Senator Collins should be heard in silence, Senator Brandis.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —With respect to these claims, the main concern I have, and the point I made earlier, is our inability to test the veracity of these claims. This is my problem and this is one of my frustrations with much of the material that we dealt with during the `children overboard' inquiry. But let me move on to some of the other reports and claims. Again, I will not pretend: they are simply reports and claims.

Senator Brandis —Make sure you mention the denials this time.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —I would like to remind the Senate of a Four Corners program where the next concern raised by this Human Rights Watch report, although not actually covered in this Human Rights Watch report, was in relation to the return of SIEV7. The Four Corners investigation, broadcast on 15 April this year, deals with how SIEV7 was returned. In appears that the ship was taken by a large Navy vessel to Indonesian waters and perhaps closer to the coast. The ship then retreated and left a vessel, which was marginally seaworthy, to become beached 400 metres from shore. This occurred in the middle of the night. The asylum seekers on this ship claim that, in the middle of the night, their ship started breaking up. They had no choice. They could not remain beached 400 metres from the shore. They had to make their way to the coast. In the middle of the night, they had to carry people who could not swim and women and children through chest or higher depth water, by the sounds of it, to the coast.

What is claimed—and there are three individuals actually named, and I would perhaps like to name them now in my comments—is that three people simply disappeared. The three people have never been seen again. The Four Corners program in April this year reported that no-one saw Hussein Yahia, Thamer Hussein and, the third man, Haithem Dawood. We do not know if they drowned. When I relay this claim to other colleagues, the comment I get back is, `When we returned these ships, did that not involve any appropriate way of getting them to the coast?' And I say, `From this story, it appears not.' They say, `Why, if we are going to return these people are we not guaranteeing that their return is conducted safely?' We do not know the answer to this.

When we look at the preliminary report released earlier than the Human Rights Watch report, one of the criticisms is the manner in which the closure of our coastal border took place, involving, for instance, the detention of men, women and children in `cruel, inhuman and degrading' conditions on board fishing vessels and the abandonment of dangerously overloaded boats in the open seas rather than their delivery to a `place of safety'. This is probably one of the significant differences between the Australian Labor Party's policy on asylum seekers and border protection and the way in which the government has conducted this.

Senator Brandis —Do you believe this Senator Collins?

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —I have suspended my disbelief on this, Senator Brandis, until we can actually see some facts.

Senator Brandis —That is what the `children overboard' inquiry was about.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESI-DENT —Senator Brandis, you are out of order and you are unruly.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —What I am concerned about is that we cannot see the facts. The government has not provided us with the facts—the detail of how precisely these four SIEVs were returned to the Indonesian coast. Until I can be confident that I know the facts, Senator Brandis, I do suspend my disbelief on this issue. But the principal issue of difference between the government's policy and our own is that we say, `If these returns are to be effected, they should be conducted safely.' This is why we do need a coast guard. Our Navy personnel and infrastructure are not geared up for safely returning people to another country's coastline, particularly at a time when our international agreements with that country do not accept that the people should be returned in the first instance. Until we have defence personnel who are trained to carry out this type of very distressing work effectively and until we have the appropriate infrastructure—whether that be ships capable of getting closer to shore rather than large Navy vessels—we have questions. And we do not have the answers.

In the Human Rights Watch report entitled By Invitation Only: Australian asylum policy released yesterday, there are very concerning reports. The Senate deserves an answer. The Australian parliament and the Australian people deserve an answer. We need to know that we are breaking up people-smuggling and that we are preventing people coming to our borders through that type of trade but that when we are doing that we are treating those very people with compassion and guaranteeing their safety. That includes knowing that if we are returning them to the Indonesian coastline we are doing so safely. I have, Senator Brandis, suspended belief that that has been the case. In these reports—and I encourage you to read them carefully—you will see Australia's response and you will be able to make your own judgment on how satisfying that response is. I commend this report to all senators. It is the first time apart from that Four Corners program in April last year that some of these details and some of the reports from the asylum seekers involved have become available.

I anticipate quite strongly that the Senate will move today that Abu Qussey be pursued more seriously by both the Australian Federal Police and the Australian government. If we are serious about discouraging people smugglers, we cannot simply wait until 1 January, and he disappears. The Australian government cannot afford to maintain the position that we are hard on people smugglers and asylum seekers—we turn them back to Indonesia; we treat them in some of the ways that have been alleged in this report—but we are not serious about bringing a people smuggler like Abu Qussey to justice. If that man goes free on 1 January next year, let it be on the head of the government that they are not really serious about addressing people smugglers.